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Seamus Heaney, Irish poet who taught at Harvard, dies at 74

Irish poet Seamus Heaney, center, displayed his Nobel literature prize medal in 1995. With him are, from left, his son Michael, daughter Catherine, his wife Marie and son Christopher.

Eric Roxfelt/AP

Irish poet Seamus Heaney, center, displayed his Nobel literature prize medal in 1995. With him are, from left, his son Michael, daughter Catherine, his wife Marie and son Christopher.

DUBLIN (AP) — Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning poet from Ireland who was associated with Harvard for more than 2 1/2 decades, died Friday after a half-century exploring the wild beauty of Ireland and the political torment within the nation’s soul. He was 74.

Heaney’s family and publisher, Faber & Faber, said in a statement that Heaney died in a Dublin hospital. He had been recuperating from a stroke since 2006.

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Heaney began teaching at Harvard in the late 1970s and over the next 2 1/2 decades held posts such as professor of rhetoric and poet-in-residence.

“We are fortunate and proud to have counted Seamus Heaney as a revered member of the Harvard family,” Harvard President Drew Faust said in a statement. “For us, as for people around the world, he epitomized the poet as a wellspring of humane insight and artful imagination, subtle wisdom and shining grace. We will remember him with deep affection and admiration.”

The Northern Ireland-born Heaney, who won the Nobel in 1995, was widely considered Ireland’s greatest poet since William Butler Yeats. He wrote 13 collections of poetry, two plays, four prose works on the process of poetry, and many other works.

Heaney was the third Irishman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, joining Yeats and Samuel Beckett.

Irish President Michael D. Higgins, himself a poet, led a torrent of tributes from political leaders and fellow writers from across the political divides, north and south, Irish Catholic and British Protestant.

‘‘The presence of Seamus was a warm one, full of humor, care and courtesy,’’ Higgins said.

’’ We are blessed to call Seamus Heaney our own and thankful for the gift of him in our national life. ... There are no words to describe adequately our nation’s and poetry’s grief at the passing of Seamus Heaney,’’ said Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

The eldest of nine children, Heaney went to Catholic boarding school in Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, Londonderry, a bitterly divided community that soon became the crucible of ‘‘the troubles,’’ the quaint local euphemism for a four-decade conflict over the British territory that has claimed more than 3,700 lives.

Life in 1950s Londonderry — where Catholics outnumbered Protestants two to one but were gerrymandered from power — provided Heaney his first real taste of injustice and ambiguity Irish-style.

His early work was rooted in vivid description of rural experience, but gradually he wedded this to the frictions, deceptions and contradictions rife in his conflicted homeland.

In 1972, the most deadly year of Northern Ireland’s conflict, Heaney left his academic post in Queen’s University in Belfast to settle in the Republic of Ireland. That year, he published ‘‘Wintering Out,’’ a collection of poems that offered only oblique references to the unrest in the north.

His follow-up 1975 collection, ‘‘North,’’ captured the Irish imagination with his pitch-perfect sense of the evils of sectarianism.

One of its poems, ‘‘Whatever You Say Say Nothing,’’ became a Northern Ireland catch phrase for the art of avoiding identifying one’s religion to probing strangers. Like much of his work, it suggested a sick society seemingly addicted to its troubles:

‘‘Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:

Maneuverings to find out name and school,

Subtle discrimination by addresses

With hardly an exception to the rule ...

Is there a life before death? That’s chalked up

In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,

Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,

We hug our little destiny again.’’

Following his Nobel win, Heaney spoke as a guest lecturer at universities worldwide and frequently conducted public readings, at which he excelled with his resonant baritone voice.

But he scaled back public commitments following a 2006 stroke that left him feeling, as he described it in a 2009 interview, feeling ‘‘babyish.’’

‘‘I cried. And I wanted my daddy,’’ he recalled.

Heaney said he felt, as a young Catholic man in a Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland, initially excited by the 1970 rise of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, an outlawed group that used death and destruction to tear down the province’s Protestant government but failed to end Northern Ireland’s union with Britain. He soon identified the IRA’s tit-for-tat bloodshed with police, soldiers and Protestant militants as a pointless waste that numbed the community’s senses.

‘‘There was a sense of an utterly wasteful, cancerous stalemate, and that the violence was unproductive. It was villainous, but you were living with it. Only after it stopped did you realize what you had lived with. Day by day, week by week, we lived through this, and didn’t fully take in what was going on,’’ he said in 2009.

Heaney’s approaching mortality was evident at one of his final public appearances this month at an event celebrating Yeats, when he initially started to quote a poem from what he called ‘‘my last book’’ — then, with a wry chuckle, switched his words to ‘‘my latest collection.’’ He declined to sign books in a sign of his fading energy.

Heaney is survived by his wife, Marie, and children Christopher, Michael and Catherine. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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